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Wilfrid Mellers considers the songs of Thomas Campion

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Alongside it, consider 'When to her lute Corinna sings', in which Campion uses a ploy similar to that of 'Author of light' in that the first stanza offers a general statement, to which the second stanza gives personal application. Here musical technique is metaphorically equated with human experience, for at the climax the strings 'breake' in a descending arpeggio, and a bar distraughtly drops out of the eight-bar symmetry. After a fraughtly empty silence the voice rounds off with an ornamented cadence, repeating the words about the broken string of lute and heart. The vocal ornament is a quiver, almost a literal 'catch in the breath'. Yet alongside this canny artifice Campion can write a straight note-against-note hymn like 'Never weather-beaten saile', the gracious gravity of the voice's tune being harmonized on the simple homophonic principles adumbrated in Campion's text book published in 1613, under the title of 'A New Waye of making Harmonie in Foure Parts'.

That Campion was technically 'progressive' although an old-fashioned Gentleman, bears on his unexpected variety, making it possible for him to make a narrative ballad, such as 'It fell on a summer's day', wherein the music is as artfully sophisticated as the words, so that we have no difficulty in accepting it as 'democratically' pertinent to us today. Though it begins with a folky phrase for the opening gambit, there's artifice even here, for the second half of the phrase is in canonic love-chase with the bass (as is immediately apprehensible if a bass-viol is used to support the lute); while the F natural that harmonizes 'sweet Bessy' gives us a delicate nudge, and even a wink. The little shock of the false relation is sweetly sensuous (she's a gentle creature, and must surely be beautiful), yet there's a tang, too, of pleasurable excitement. In the next phrase the dancing, hesitant rhythm musically enacts the chequered shadows in the bedroom, as well as Bessy's teasing sleepiness. In the poem these exploratory clauses lead into the trenchant words JAMIE CAME; and on the word 'came' there's a false relation exactly echoing the earlier one for Bessy's sweetness so that, although the word 'came' cannot in context be interpreted as a sexual pun, it implicates both boy and girl in an anticipatory fervour. When Bessy 'opens halfe her heavie eyes' we're back in the dreamy heat of the summer afternoon, with a delicious cross-rhythm to point the word 'halfe', and an arabesque, at once drowsy and sly, on the word 'heavie'. This pattern of verbal and musical imagery is repeated in each stanza, the melisma on 'every' in the final verse amounting to a tender chuckle - habitually echoed by any audience present.

When the great Alfred Deller first recorded lute songs in the fifties and sixties his performances were revelatory for the mysteriously simple reason that he was an artist of genius; his recorded versions of some of these Campion songs, as well as of the supreme masterpieces of Dowland, remain of classic status. Even so, lute songs were not meant to be sung by male altos but by normal baritone voices, preferably with the singer strumming his own lute, that most intimate of musical instruments. Steven Rickards is a fine American countertenor and Dorothy Linell is a knowledgeable as well as technically capable lutenist, but they do not achieve, together, the illusion that the real Thomas Campion, gentleman, soldier, lawyer, doctor, and talented poet-composer, is singing to us, here and now. Rickard's countertenor, though effective in the religious songs, cannot, like Deller's, embrace the sophisticated love songs without a hint of archness. The liner-notes inform us that Rickard was one-time pupil of Peter Pears; for all his qualities he isn't, as an interpreter of Campion, anywhere near Pear's class. Still, he has a class of his own; and this disc is worth acquiring for its final track alone. Rickard's spell-binding singing of Campion's rare setting of anonymous words, 'Miserere my Maker', a chromatic lament so proudly sustained that it ought to be construed autobiographically, though we're not told if it can be.

Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, May 23rd 1999

Naxos, Alte Musick      8 553380          DDD

Steven Rickards, countertenor, Dorothy Linell, lute

Thomas Campion Lute Songs


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